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March 21, 2003

Reading lips for the FBI

From: Canton Repository, OH - Mar 21, 2003

By DAN KANE Repository entertainment writer

Sue Thomas has had an extraordinary life.

The fact that she’s been profoundly deaf since early childhood makes her story all the more inspirational.

“It’s been a tremendous journey,” she says. “It never ceases to amaze me what the next day will bring.”

Thomas’ experiences as the first female FBI agent who was deaf have inspired a popular series on TV’s PAX Network. Titled “Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye,” the hourlong weekly drama demonstrates how Thomas’ lip-reading skills made her an invaluable commodity in FBI surveillance situations.

“I had many field-officer experiences, sitting in a van using field glasses to read lips, or sitting in a restaurant observing people having a conversation,” Thomas says. “People had no idea what I was doing, so there was no danger. I never actually ran to catch the bad guys.”

The cases she worked on included “drug deals, embezzlement, extortion, mostly white-collar crime,” she says.

Post-college, Thomas was employed at the Youngstown Hearing and Speech Center when she learned that the FBI was seeking deaf people to train as fingerprint examiners. She jumped at the opportunity.

“When you are living in silence, there are not so many distractions,” she says, via telephone from her home in Columbiana. (An assistant typed my questions for her and Thomas spoke her answers.) “This is basically why the FBI started a training program for people who are deaf. Because of the intensity of the work, the concentration level could be much greater.”

Alas, Thomas’ days as an FBI fingerprint examiner in Washington, D.C., were numbered. One day she was called in to watch a surveillance film whose sound was missing; her lip-reading skills enabled her to fill in the missing dialogue.

“The rest was history,” she says of her elevation to field officer. “I never went back to reading fingerprints.”

The title role of “Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye” is played by Deanne Bray, an actress who has been deaf since birth. “She’s become like a little sis to me. We try to spend as much time together as we can,” Thomas says about Bray. “She makes me look very good. I’m very proud of her.”

The series includes flashbacks of pivotal incidents from Thomas’ childhood. Soundless sequences vividly convey how Thomas experiences life.

Still in its first season, “Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye,” airs in 15 countries and attracts about 2.4 million viewers weekly. “We’re getting thousands of letters in support of the show, not only from deaf people but from the entire disability community,” Thomas says. “Never before has a series about someone with a disability starred someone with a disability.”

Thomas returned home Wednesday night from Toronto where “Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye” is filmed. She has an on-camera role in the series’ season finale.

“People will be able to see the true Sue Thomas and (her hearing dog) Amazing Grace,” she enthuses. “I play a character who can return to the series periodically. I’m not going to give it away but it was really creative thinking. I’m absolutely thrilled with the part I have.“

Since “Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye” debuted last fall, Thomas’ life has changed dramatically. She has become an in-demand professional speaker.

“The plate is full if not overwhelming,” she says, currently in the midst of a 44-day speaking tour. “If my life can be an encouragement for others I feel very comfortable sharing it with people. I am what I am because of the people who believed in me.”

As a young girl, after abruptly going deaf at 18 months old, Thomas learned to speak and to play classical piano. At age 7, she became Ohio’s youngest ever champion freestyle ice skater. Despite these accomplishments, her early life was tough going.

“When I was young, I was considered deaf and dumb. There were no hearing dogs. There was no way to speak by phone as we are doing now,” she says. “We’ve come a long way, baby, but there is still room for improvement.”

An invaluable asset to Thomas’ life is Amazing Grace, her constant canine companion.

“She has been trained to be my ears. Whenever a sound goes off — the phone, alarm clock, doorbell — she will come and find me and jump on me and take me to where the sound is,” Thomas explains.

“She is very persistent and dedicated and well-trained, the same as a seeing-eye dog for the blind. She is a tremendous help in life’s journey.”

With one book, “Silent Night,” already published, Thomas is working on two more. The first is an autobiography that includes her experiences with the TV series, the second is about Levi, who was her first hearing dog.

FBI agent, author, actress ... are there any other career moves up Thomas’ sleeve?

“Who could have ever imagined this story?” she says. “It keeps being written by God.”

Sue Thomas will present a free talk about her life and experiences at 8 p.m. Monday at the Brehme Centennial Center on the Malone College campus.

At 10 a.m. Monday, Thomas will address Malone College chapel at First Christian Church of Canton, 2600 Cleveland Ave. NW.

Both programs are free and open to the public.

Copyright ©2003 The Repository